Reno Omokri: What we can learn from one another

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Jideofor Adibe

Reno Omokri’s article, ‘Hegemony: What the Igbo can learn from Yoruba and Fulani about power’ – published in the Vanguard of June 3, 2017, was very insightful and could mainstream conversations about inter-ethnic perceptions and misinformation in the country. Such conversations have largely remained an affair for ‘internet warriors’.

In his article, Pastor Omokri, a former Special Assistant to former President Jonathan on Social Media, argues that there are certain behavioural and cultural traits that impede the Igbo in their quest to produce a President of Igbo extraction and that there is a lot they can learn from the Yoruba and the Hausa-Fulani in this regard. He also gave collective advice to the South on how to “correctly perceive the Hausa/Fulani because the “Fulani are not our enemies” but “our rivals for power”.

Let me say immediately that I admire Reno Omokri for his steadfast loyalty to his former boss. I also admire the fact that he expresses his opinions on issues strongly and from his heart – and also almost always using acceptable language.

In his article Omokri concedes that the “Igbo are marginalized” but blamed it on themselves for the following reasons:

One, Ndi’Igbo must jettison “the false stereotype that the Omo Oduduwa (Yoruba) are cowards”.

Two, “the major undoing of Ndi’Igbo is their misunderstanding of the term strength”, which makes them to erroneously believe that strength is necessarily physical. The Igbo, Omokri counsels, must learn to consider diplomacy as a first step.

Three, the Igbo generally do not respect their elders. To illustrate this Omokri said that on May 30, 2017, his grandfather called and asked him to shave off his white goatee beard, which he had spotted for nearly ten years and he obeyed without questioning. Reno doubted whether any Igbo grandfather will be capable of exercising such influence on an Igbo successful person. He also noted that the Yoruba and Hausa/Fulani prostrate or lie down before their elders as a sign of respect.

Four, while Ndi’Igbo are individually intelligent, “they hardly use their intelligence to unite and have one leader.” He believes among the Igbo money rather than wisdom gives one leadership positions.

Five, on the Hausa/Fulani, he advises the South that “the Fulani are not our enemies. They are our rivals for power.” He noted that once we “we make this paradigm shift; our attitudes to seeking political power will change.”

Let me preface my commentary on Omokri’s very useful article by saying that the society has moved from the era of ‘hierarchy of cultures’ (popularized by the colonial anthropologists who ranked cultures in order of their assumed superiority and inferiority, with those of the natives at the bottom of the hierarchy) to a recognition that every culture serves its people, hence people these days talk of ‘cultural relativity’. This means that it is important for this conversation not to be seen in terms of ‘hierarchy of cultures’ but on how to correct misperceptions and misinformation about different ethnic and cultural groups in the country.

I agree completely with Omokri that Igbo ‘internet warriors’ get it all wrong to ascribe ‘cowardice’ to the Yoruba – an ethnic group that has produced some of the bravest individuals in our history including Fela Anikulapo and his brother Beko, Gani Fawhinmi and others.  I also agree that there is a tendency among my Igbo people to misunderstand the term ‘strength’, and that they can do a lot more to improve on their diplomatic skills and long term strategic planning.  But I am not sure I agree with the examples given by Omokri to illustrate Yoruba and Hausa/Fulani respect for elders. For instance Omokri’s example of unquestioningly shaving off a goatee beard he has spotted for nearly ten years just on the say-so of his grandfather raises several questions, including why it took his grandfather ten years to realize that his white goatee was inappropriate? In the USA where Omokri apparently lives, is it regarded as good parenting for children to obey their parents without questions even on issues they disagree with? On the contrary, parents are encouraged to reason and engage in dialogues with their children – not to be dictators.  In the same vein, a European will typically see a child who gives a firm handshake and looks people straight in the eyes as a very confident and well brought up child – rather than one without respect. In fact, if prostrating or lying down to greet your elders is all that defines respect for elders, why is there a disconnect between the young and the old across virtually every ethnic group in the country, including among the Yoruba and Hausa/Fulani?

Omokri’s argument that the Igbo hardly use their intelligence to unite around one leader is again an area of cultural relativity, which is misunderstood by many Nigerians. Unlike some ethnic groups, the Igbo unite around values, not individuals. This often means that the Igbo will follow anyone who exhibits the skills or values required by the situation at hand.  In this sense, the Igbo notion of leadership is situational. For instance while many Igbo continue to respect the late Ojukwu  for the courage he displayed in the events leading to the civil war, you will discover that the same people may not want to elect him to a political office today because they may not believe that he has enough of the skills needed for a political office today. This is also why the Igbo, unlike many other ethnic groups, are not dynastic.  By the way, who will Omokri call the leaders of America, Britain, and Germany – outside their political representatives and former office holders?

Again while the Igbo are largely Republican, they are paradoxically among the most communitarian ethnic groups in Nigeria. An average Igbo for instance attends regularly meetings of his town union and most projects in his village were most likely implemented through communal effort.  If an Igbo dies outside his village, his town union where he resides will often rally to take the corpse ‘home’ for burial. Similarly a wealthy Igbo who tries to lord it over his community will be resisted, if not ostracised – as the case of Emeka Offor and his Oraifite community, (which has been in the media) shows.  Among the Igbo, your wealth is deemed to have no meaning if you have not used it to advance your community or helped some people to ‘become somebody’ – as they will say.

Omokri also misunderstood the Igbo when he believes wrongly that money alone can get one leadership position.  In fact while Igbo society is achievement oriented, and every rich person will attract hangers-on, it is probably more difficult in Igboland than elsewhere for a rich man to win elections.  A former CBN Governor who was running for Governorship election in Anambra State was reportedly told by one political gladiator:  “You are a Professor, you are rich and you want to add political power to it? That will be too much for one man”.  You are also less likely to see the poor and hungry gather for food  and favours around the house of a rich man in Igboland than probably elsewhere in the country.

It is also contestable if the values attributed to the Yoruba by Omokri are indeed responsible for their ‘political successes’. Was it really Yoruba political sagacity and diplomatic skills that made Obasanjo President in 1999 (when most Yoruba did not vote for him)? Again was it the alleged skills of the Yoruba that threw up Yemi Osinbajo as Vice President or circumstances? When the Igbo produced the Vice President and Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Second Republic (less than ten years after the end of the Civil War), was it due to their political skills and strategic planning or circumstance?

I completely agree with Omokri on the Hausa/Fulani. But he omitted to mention that the major reason they often play the ‘beautiful bride’ in Nigerian politics is the perception that they are honest and trustworthy (though some say  that these days, for some, their ‘Wallahi Tallyi’ is becoming ‘Wallahi I lie). Of course the fact of their population and binding force of Islam also help.

It would have also been nice if Omokri said a few things about what the Yoruba could learn from the Igbo and other ethnic groups – for balance. For instance as a pastor, I am sure the Igbo will be the next biggest group outside his Yoruba kinsmen in his church. The same will be true if a Yoruba or any other ethnic group opens up any professional or commercial service. Can Omokri say the same of the Yoruba? The truth is that while the Yoruba are generally urbane and friendly, they are also rightly or wrongly perceived as very ethnocentric in terms of patronizing services provided by non-Yoruba.

In essence, we have a lot to learn from one another, and Pastor Omokri may have taken an important conversation away from the ‘internet warriors’.
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Email: pcjadibe@yahoo.com

Twitter: @JideoforAdibe

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